In theory, a great wine has a mission and it is only partially to be tasty the moment it is offered for sale.
The manifest destiny of a great wine is to provide a pleasurable experience within the context of the grape varietal(s) used in its makeup, to work well within the context of food and, importantly, to show how those varieties reflect the soils from which they come.
Many wines fail one or more of those tests. Usually it’s the third one.
Wines that meet all three challenges can be not only exemplary, but worthy of buying almost every vintage because they have a reliability that exceeds vintage variations.
An example, albeit a rather obscure one, would be American Gruner Veltliner. This fine white Austrian grape makes excellent wines in cooler climates; often the best are dry and aimed at working with more delicate foods such as pan-fried trout.
I believe that the three best Gruner Veltliners in the United States are all perfectly varietal and beautifully balanced to work with meals and notably come from cooler climates. They are Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley, Ore.; Galen Glen Winery in Lehigh Valley, Pa., and Zocker from San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley.
All three wineries are located in specific American Viticultural Appellations (AVAs) and happen to have hit on a truth. Although all three wineries make superb wines from many varieties, Gruner Veltliner seems to achieve true distinctiveness in their regions.
Appellations are thus an important part of the quest by wineries to find more distinctiveness in their wines and to avoid the homogeneity morass that far too many wineries are prone to fall into.
Perhaps the one grape variety in which regional identity plays the most prominent role is pinot noir. Cool climates are essential for this grape to achieve its greatest potential, and many areas that feature pinot are either cool, cold, foggy, or windy.
And the specific geographical, geological, and climatologic conditions impart to Pinot Noir a special regional tilt to its aroma and taste profiles.
So, for example, Willamette Valley in Oregon claims supremacy with pinot, as do the southern Napa-Sonoma area of Carneros; the Monterey County (Salinas Valley hillside) area of Santa Lucia Highlands; Santa Barbara County; Russian River Valley; the amorphous Sonoma Coast; San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley, and pockets of smaller appellations, such as Chalone, Arroyo Seco, and Santa Cruz Mountains.
Oddly, possibly the most distinctive pinot noir area in the United States is one that has yet to be approved as a legal AVA.
It is Sonoma County’s Petaluma Gap, whose wineries have been waiting patiently (well, not so patiently) for the U.S. government to approve this area in the middle of the massive Sonoma Coast.
If ever an area needed a fast rubber stamp of its petition for legal status, this is it.
I have done various blind tastings over the last several years of pinot noirs, and have found more distinctiveness from Gap-grown wines than almost any other.
After a thorough technical analysis of soils and weather patterns, a petition to certify Petaluma Gap as an AVA was finally submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) last February by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance.